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A “Compliance-Based” Approach to Autonomous Weapon Systems

Published on December 1, 2017        Author:  and

A Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on the topic of Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWS) concluded its first meeting in Geneva on 17 November 2017. The meeting was held under the auspices of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) and built upon on three informal meetings of experts held between 2014 and 2016 (for reports of those meetings, see here). In December 2016, the Fifth Review Conference of the High Contracting Parties of the CCW had tasked the GGE “to explore and agree on possible recommendations on options related to emerging technologies in the area of LAWS” (see Decision 1 here and the agreed recommendations contained in this report).

At the heart of the debate is the question how States should respond to the emergence of such weapons. While some highlight legal, ethical or moral concerns of delegating life and death decisions to machines and advocate for a preventive prohibition of autonomous weapons systems, others pinpoint potential benefits for the way wars are fought in the future and deem any policy options, including regulation, to be premature.

As often in such multilateral discussions, it is hard to make progress and to get all States to agree on a common approach. The topic of autonomous weapon systems is no different. Indeed, perhaps it is particularly difficult because we do not yet fully understand what robotics and artificial intelligence truly harbor for the future of warfare, and for humanity in general. In an initial step, the GGE in its first session affirmed that international humanitarian law (IHL) applies to all weapons, including the potential development and use of autonomous weapon systems, and that responsibility for their deployment remains with States (see report here). This is a welcome step but obviously cannot be understood to exhaust the topic.

In an effort to generate momentum and identify common denominators, Switzerland presented a working paper at the beginning of the GGE, in which it is argued that ensuring compliance with international law, notably IHL, could and should be common ground among States and that this could form a constructive basis for further work. Accordingly, it should, at least as one element, be central to discussions of the GGE about autonomous weapon systems and should figure prominently in the report of the GGE as well as in the way forward. In the following, we recapitulate requirements for compliance with IHL and on that basis identify elements for a “compliance-based” approach aimed at advancing the debate within the CCW in an inclusive and constructive manner. Read the rest of this entry…